Would you like to join the crew of the Concordia station in the Antartica?

Concordia view
"Although the landscape is completely flat and white for as far as the eye can see, it still manages to take my breath away"
29 June 2009

Winter in Antarctica is harsh. Temperatures occasionally going as low as -84ºC, permanent darkness and isolation are only some of the conditions that crews at the Antarctic station Concordia have to brave. These challenging circumstances could help prepare for future human space exploration missions.

For the last couple of years, ESA has sponsored one of the Concordia crewmembers who has the task to implement selected medical research projects. ESA is again looking for candidates to apply for the position of Concordia research medical doctor for the next season. Find out how to apply in the Call for candidates linked on the right.

Many of the same constraints that naturally occur during the winter at Concordia are quite similar to those that can be expected for future crewed exploration missions, for example to Mars. For this reason, in 2002, ESA established a cooperation with the builders and operators of the station; the French Polar Institute (Institute Paul Emile Victor, IPEV) and the Italian Antarctic Programme (Consorzio per l’Attuazione del Programma Nazionale di Ricerche in Antartide, PNRA S.C.r.l.). Next to some technology validation, the main focus of this cooperation is on medicine, physiology and psychology.

This year’s Concordia research medical doctor is Alex Salam.

Alex, can you briefly introduce yourself and your background?

Concordia Station Antarctica
The Concordia research station

I’m 29 years old and of mixed origin (French mother, Irish-Egyptian father). Born in the United States, I moved shortly afterwards to the United Kingdom. I studied medicine in Sheffield. I then trained in several medical specialties in London including internal medicine, intensive care, anaesthetics and emergency medicine whilst at the same time working on a number of research projects in my spare time.

What was your motivation for applying to the position of research medical doctor for Concordia?

I wanted to do something completely different to routine clinical work. For a number of years I had wanted to experience the challenge and beauty of living and working in Antarctica, but I had never been very attracted to the clinical posts advertised as I was more interested in academic research. The post of ‘ESA research MD’ was the perfect opportunity as it combined fascinating and challenging research in one of the world’s most pristine and hostile environments. I consider myself very lucky to be here at Concordia, doing the work that I am doing.

Can you briefly outline the research projects that you are implementing this season?

Map of Antarctica showing Dome-C and Concordia Station.
Antarctica

This year I am implementing four research projects: Choice, Comics, Bluelight and Nightsocks. Choice is investigating the effects of chronic hypoxia and stress on the immune system. It involves regular blood, urine, saliva and urine sampling from the crewmembers for numerous immunological and stress parameters. Comics is investigating the ecology of microbial communities in Concordia station as well as diversity and genetic fluxes among the microflora associated with the human crew and with the confined environment of the station. It involves monthly air, surface and faecal sampling and processing. Bluelight is investigating the effect of blue enhanced light on sleep, concentration, mood and performance during the winter period and Nightsocks is investigating the effect of increasing heat loss from the extremities (by wearing socks during sleep) on sleep quality and the autonomic system.

What does your typical day look like (if such a thing exists)?

Concordia Station Antarctica
Concordia Station in Antarctica

A typical day varies according to which research projects I am concentrating on. I work anything from 8 to 14 hours a day. When I have a little spare time from the biomedical research projects, I usually work on writing papers or helping the technical team with repairs and maintenance. Outside work, daily life is very repetitive and monotonous. There are very few forms of entertainment or pleasure on the base and we are essentially confined to the base for the nine-month winter period due to the extreme outdoor temperatures.

How did you and the other crewmembers experience and cope with the isolation so far?

In general the crew is coping well and has had few issues. The group as a whole gets along fine and I think we are very fortunate to have the crew that we have this year. I think the key to surviving the winter-over is staying professionally and personally motivated and setting oneself attainable goals to achieve throughout the year.

What has been the most enjoyable and the most challenging part of living there?

Although the landscape is completely flat and white for as far as the eye can see, it still manages to take my breath away each time I leave the station. It’s when you go outside and you see the base from a distance that you realise how absolutely isolated we are. It really is as if we are living on another planet. So far the winter-over has not been as difficult as I expected it would be. I thought I would find the confinement to the base difficult to deal with but surprisingly it occupies very little of my thoughts.

What are your responsibilities as medical doctor?

Concordia is one of the rare Antarctic stations to have two medical doctors during the winter period. Although primarily a research role, the ESA research medical doctor is obviously expected to provide clinical support when needed e.g. emergencies, diagnostic dilemmas, practical procedures etc. You need to have a wide range of clinical skills given the impossibility of evacuation and the communication difficulties. The ESA research medical doctor also supports the medical training of the lay crewmembers.

Call for candidates

If you have a medical background you might want to consider applying for the position of Concordia research medical doctor for the next season. You will find information about how to apply in the Call for candidates linked on the right. The deadline for applications is 17 July 2009.

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